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It’s always about your disability: The Cassandra Cain Blind Spot

Editor’s note: The following is an opinion piece and statements within do not necessarily reflect official views of The Geek Girl Project.

Cassandra Cain is so important.

Let me just say that again, Cassandra Cain is so important. She’s probably, despite an only recently revoked editorial removal which lasted four years, still the most popular non-white person in the Batfamily. She’s the longest running Batgirl who isn’t ginger. She’s beaten Batman, Lady Shiva, and Dick Grayson.

And, she’s disabled. Now that Oracle’s gone, she’s the only disabled Bat.

Since Cass’s disability comes from the magical world of comic book science, I will explain. She was raised to read body language rather than speak, and while that was in an old continuity, we can assume based on her non-verbal appearances in the nu52 that the same still largely holds true. While she can speak, her brain is wired differently so that learning took effort and work and left her still struggling. When we last saw old-DC Cass during Convergence (before she set sail for worlds unknown with her BFF) she was around twenty, and learning how to read.

None of this has ever, ever been about Cass’s intelligence. Based on how perceptive she is, you could probably call her among the most ‘clever’ Bat characters, and that’s important too. Cass has difficulty making herself understood, but no difficultly in understanding.

Batman and Robin Eternal, a new weekly series featuring the Batkids having Batadventures about child trafficking, was finally able to bring Cass back. It’s a good book with a bunch of fun interactions among popular characters.

It’s also, unfortunately, the source of this:

Batman and Robin Eternal 3 by Tim Seeley and James Tynion IV

sigh   (Image: Batman and Robin Eternal 3 by Tim Seeley and James Tynion IV, DC Comics) 

And now this:

Batman and Robin Eternal 4 by Steve Orlando and Scot Eaton

double sigh   (image: Batman and Robin Eternal 4 by Steve Orlando and Scot Eaton, DC Comics) 

For people who aren’t Batliterate, the first panel shows Tim Drake, Robin number three, saying that Cass has a child’s brain. He’s basing this solely on her not being able to talk. He knows that she’s rescued one of his friends, that she’s come looking for them, that she’s capable of competence. And yet… that.

It’s also followed by Cass herself labeling Tim the ‘brains’ of the Batgang, so either she agrees with his assessment or she’s completely incapable of understanding that he was cartoonish-ly patronising her. Either way, what a horrible moment, right?

The second incident is more tricky. Here we see Stephanie Brown, a very popular character, a great deal of whose popularity comes from her old retconned friendship with Cass, calling her a non-person.

I spoke to Steve Orlando, the writer for this issue, on Twitter. He is a really nice guy, and he also writes the excellent Midnighter which everyone should check out.

What he’s not, is a disabled person.

Orlando’s explanation for Steph’s statement here is that she’s worried about her friend (Harper Row, who’s gone exploring with Cass) and that she’s describing Cass as she is because Cass is so supremely good at fighting. Steph is scared that the dangerous (though so far she’s mainly just rescued Harper) Cass might hurt someone she cares about. It’s understandable, and it’s not like they got off to a great start in the old continuity either (though none of Steph’s remarks were ever as thoughtless as she’s being here).

Those are all good reasons.

They’re also not important.

For starters: would Steph have said that if Cass had talked? Granted, and as Orlando pointed out, Steph doesn’t know why Cass is quiet. But I’m sure she’s met people who can’t speak before. Does she think they’re not human too?

And secondly, and I’m going to make everyone uncomfortable by going personal here, I’m disabled. I have a speech impediment and learning difficulties. I’ve never been non-verbal, but there was a time when I started school that I stopped talking as much as I could because I knew people wouldn’t understand me. And people do say things like Tim and Steph do in these panels.

And if someone were to say now that I’m not a person? Whatever they meant, even if they were describing my scales and massive dragon wings, for me it would be about my disability.

So Steph Brown saying that about someone we’re used to her loving and understanding? Steph Brown, pillar of grit-your-teeth-and-do-it optimism, saying that to Cassandra Cain, the girl who dreamed of her carrying her in her arms into heaven? That’s about her disability, not only to disabled readers but to everyone else who’s picked up on Cass’s non-verbal-ness and has decided it’s ‘odd’.

And nobody – none of the Batkids present – have called her out on it. Nobody even said to Tim, ‘wait, no, that’s awful’. These statements are left unchallenged. I’m sure in future issues everyone will learn about Cass and they’ll feel sorry for their appalling treatment. But you shouldn’t have to know that someone was raised to be an assassin to not insult them, their intelligence, or their physical and mental capabilities.

Either every single Batkid – even Dick Grayson – is supposed to come across as insensitive, or this should have been written differently.

Steve Orlando is a big supporter of LGBTQIA rights, and as a queer person I’m so grateful for that. His writing on Midnighter has been sensitive and realistic and wonderful. The lead writer on the series, Scott Snyder, has done awesome things for Batman, and James Tynion IV, writer of the issue where Tim said that, also writes The Woods, a great horror series from Boom Studios.

These are good writers who don’t fall back on most offensive tropes, and it sucks that disability is still a blind spot.

 

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One Comment

  1. I really like this point you put across. though I have yet to read those issues since I’ve only gotten my hands on the first issue so far (so damn difficult to get issues here in my country), I do think that those panels were kind of off too now that you shed light on it. Also, it seemed kind of ironic to have them come from Steph and Tim of all people! O.O
    I think you’re right disabilities should also be taken note of in the comics-verse as well, and Cass’ is a good start.

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